Will Francis break the Church?

Pope Francis Wiki Commons

The possibility of a revolutionary pope isn't one that most Vatican-watchers have taken seriously. But then came Pope Francis. Ross Douthat reports for The Atlantic on the joy of some in the Church, and the concerns of others.

The reality is that popes are rarely the great protagonists of Catholic dramas. They are circumscribed by tradition and hemmed in by bureaucracy, and on vexing issues Rome tends to move last, after arguments have been thrashed out for generations.

The arc of Jorge Bergoglio's career follows a literary script: Youthful success, defeat and exile, then unexpected vindication and ascent.

Yet now we have a Pope Francesco in the flesh, and elements of Walter F Murphy's best seller, The Vicar of Chirst, have come to pass, or so it seems: The attention-grabbing breaks with papal protocol, the interventions in global politics, the reopening of moral issues that his predecessors had deemed settled, and the blend of public humility and skillful exploitation—including the cashiering of opponents—of the papal office and its powers.

The Church is not yet in the grip of a revolution. The limits, theological and practical, on papal power are still present, and the man who was Jorge Bergoglio has not done anything that explicitly puts them to the test. But his moves and choices (and the media coverage thereof) have generated a revolutionary atmosphere around Catholicism. For the moment, at least, there is a sense that a new springtime has arrived for the Church's progressives. And among some conservative Catholics, there is a feeling of uncertainty absent since the often-chaotic aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s and '70s.

In the age of Francis, this progressive faith seems to rest on two assumptions. The first is that the changes conservatives are resisting are, in fact, necessary for missionary work in the post-sexual-revolution age, and that once they're accomplished, the subsequent renewal will justify the means. The second is that because conservative Catholics are so invested in papal authority, a revolution from above can carry all before it: the conservatives' very theology makes it impossible for them to effectively resist a liberalizing pope, and anyway they have no other place to go.

But the first assumption now has a certain amount of evidence against it, given how many of the Protestant churches that have already liberalized on sexual issues—again, often dividing in the process—are presently aging toward a comfortable extinction. (As is, of course, the Catholic Church in Germany, ground zero for Walter Kasper's vision of reform.)

Contemporary progressive Catholicism has been stamped by the experience of the Second Vatican Council, when what was then a vital American Catholicism could be invoked as evidence that the Church should make its peace with liberalism as it was understood in 1960. But liberalism in 2015 means something rather different, and attempts to accommodate Christianity to its tenets have rarely produced the expected flourishing and growth. Instead, liberal Christianity's recent victories have very often been associated with the decline or dissolution of its institutional expressions.

Which leaves the second assumption for liberals to fall back on—a kind of progressive ultramontanism, which assumes that papal power can remake the Church without dividing it, and that when Rome speaks, even disappointed conservatives will ultimately concede that the case is closed.

It is a brave theory. We will soon find out whether Papa Francesco intends to put it to the test.

- Ross Douthat 

Will Francis break the Church? (The Atlantic)

Image: Wiki Commons here.

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